The answer might seem simple, but in the hands of Lesley Hazleton, the question takes us on a surprisingly humorous and thought-provoking journey into what it would actually mean to live forever. And whether we’d truly want to. A frequent TED.com speaker and ‘Accidental Theologist,’ Hazleton uses wit and wisdom to challenge our ideas not only about death, but about what it is to live well.
Lesley Hazleton has traced the roots of conflict in several books, including compelling ‘flesh-and-blood’ biographies of Muhammad and Mary, and casts “an agnostic eye on politics, religion, and existence” on her blog, AccidentalTheologist.com. Her newest book, Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, celebrates the agnostic stance as “rising above the flat two-dimensional line of belief/unbelief, creating new possibilities for how we think about being in the world.” In it, she explores what we mean by the search for meaning, invokes the humbling perspective of infinity and reconsiders what we talk about when we talk about soul.
[W]e all love to fantasise that when we pass away people will be lining the roads mourning – the world absolutely devastated, unable to go on without you. No? Just me?
In reality, it’s not quite such an extreme display of mourning, but at least you can always rely on your close family to at least shed a few tears, right? Well, not always, it seems.
The children of one Minnesota woman, who died at 80 last week, have said she will ‘not be missed’ and that the world is ‘a better place without her. Savage.
Most of the obituary reads as any other would, explaining that the woman, Kathleen, was born on 19 March 1938, and that she got married to someone called Dennis in 1957. However, things take a bit of a strange – and absolutely fascinating – turn halfway through.
The obituary read: “Kathleen Dehmlow (Schunk) was born on March 19, 1938 to Joseph and Gertrude Schunk of Wabasso.
“She married Dennis Dehmlow at St. Anne’s in Wabasso in 1957 and had two children Gin and Jay.”
So far, so nice, right?
“In 1962 she became pregnant by her husband’s brother Lyle Dehmlow and moved to California.”
Oh, hello… Now it’s getting juicy.
“She abandoned her children, Gina and Jay, who were then raised by her parents in Clements, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Schunk.
“She passed away on May 31, 2018 in Springfield and will now face judgment.”
And for a final sting, it concluded: “She will not be missed by Gina and Jay and they understand that this world is a better place without her.”
Redwood Falls Gazette, where the paid obituary was originally published, has since pulled it from its website.
However, a photo of the published piece had already gone viral – with many people on social media weighing in on the drama.
“So… what’s Dennis’ story?” one person wrote, with someone else saying: “Raised by her parents? I realize this was the 60s but Dennis gets to also abandon his kids because his wife left him?”
Another person asked: “What about Lyle’s kid? Did she have it? Did Lyle’s baby write another obituary?”
Someone else suggested: “I can think of a person who could really shed some light here… @DrPhil care to weigh in?”
Some others criticised Jay and Gina for the harsh obituary, saying that everyone deserves death with dignity.
But either way, it’s certainly a good lesson in how you probably shouldn’t piss off those who will one day end up writing your obituary…
[I] might die at any moment. My roof might collapse when my millennial neighbors throw a party that is too cool! I could finally freeze to death from never buying a winter coat! We could all die from (insert terrifying thing Trump is doing today)! So it’s important to plan ahead. While most Americans opt for cremation or embalming, five years of living in Brooklyn have made me much too alt for either. Here are some other suggestions.
Donate my body to pranks.
Spray-paint my bones gold and sell them at Free People.
Let doctors use my body to practice surgery, but make sure they’re not plastic surgeons. I spent a lot of time and effort while alive making sure I wasn’t hot; I don’t suddenly want to be hot when I die.
Roll me into the ocean—it seems like fun for both of us!
Donate all my organs to science, except for my eyes. It’s not that I’m sentimental about my eyes, it’s just that I want them to be used in that spooky “put your hand in the bowl” Halloween trick, in lieu of peeled grapes.
Cremate me, but only if you find a very hip ceramic, block-painted urn that costs three hundred dollars and was made by someone in Brooklyn who somehow makes pottery as a living.
Add me to the “Bodies” exhibit, and make my skeleton do a gnarly skateboard trick. Have the explanatory plaque read, “Blythe was able to do this in real life and did it constantly.”
Put me in a big jar of formaldehyde, like Stannis Baratheon’s wife does with those fetuses on “Game of Thrones.” When you see people getting creeped out by it, say, “Oh, yeah, I bought that at Free People.”
Compost my body and use the resulting loam on my succulents. It doesn’t matter if I’m the wrong kind of soil for the succulents; I’m already killing them while I’m alive.
Keep losing and re-finding my bones, setting off a media frenzy every time with headlines like, “SKELETON DISCOVERED UNDER PARKING LOT.”
Plant a memorial cactus on top of me. I swear to God, I am going to be reincarnated as a succulent.
Use me as a crash-test dummy to prove that it’s actually not dangerous to put your feet up on the dashboard.
Don’t embalm me, and bury me in a natural coffin in a natural cemetery. See if you can find a plot inside a national park. Make my gravesite a geotag on Instagram.
Humor takes the sting away; it humanizes us; it helps us keep our perspective. Humor enriches us; it educates us; it brings us joy. Humor doesn’t dissolve the pain or make our life any less poignant, but it does help make things more bearable. That’s my philosophy, and I’m happy to share it with you on a weekly basis. I hope that if you enjoy what you see, you will take the opportunity to share it with others.
[H]umor takes the sting away; it humanizes us; it helps us keep our perspective. Humor enriches us; it educates us; it brings us joy. Humor doesn’t dissolve the pain or make our life any less poignant, but it does help make things more bearable. That’s my philosophy, and I’m happy to share it with you. I hope that if you enjoy what you see, you will take the opportunity to share it with others.
I was pretty upset at the world after my mom died. One day at work, a customer complained about me not moving fast enough and I was ready to cuss him out, but my manager said, “Stay calm. Your mother would have wanted you to stay calm.” Um, how the hell did my manager know what my mother would have wanted? My mother once yelled at a stranger for chewing with his mouth open—at Thanksgiving dinner at a shelter. Pretty sure she would have wanted me to slap that customer upside the head and say, “Is that fast enough for you?”
Another NYC-based comedian, Shalewa Sharpe “developed her sly yet goofy style in Atlanta where she was raised,” according to her website. For more insightful, intimate observations, you should check out her album, Stay Eating Cookies.
7. Jenn Welch
“Ugh, it’s been three weeks since my dad died, how am I still single?!”
Jenn Welch was the subject of a recent Washington Post story headlined, “This comedian’s dad died last month. So she added that in her Tinder profile.” Yes, she really did that. In the article, Welch explains that her intent was not to make fun of those that responded: “The joke’s not on the men who respond to her, Welch said. Rather, she’s the punchline. ‘The joke of it is to be that brutally honest about where I am and what I’m going through,’ she said.”
Curious to see what kind of responses she got? We all are. She’s done us all a favor and made an Instagram account where she posts screenshots of her various exchanges. Here are two of my personal favorites:
Of Welch’s peculiar approach to grieving, the Post observed how social media helped her connect with other people in her shoes: “Welch did draw inspiration from social media—specifically from her friend and fellow comedian Ben Wasserman, whose father passed away from cancer two weeks before Welch’s did. “We’ve kind of been grieving together,” Welch said. “He went to town on Facebook with jokes about it… That made me feel more comfortable about being open about what I’m going through as well.”
8. Ben Wasserman
“how bout an all-female reboot of MY DAD”
The joke above is one example of the many statuses that Ben Wasserman has posted on Facebook since his father’s death. Welch wasn’t exaggerating when she said he “went to town”—I can attest to this, being that I am his Facebook friend. A few of his other memorable takes, reacting to Daylight Savings Time and Rachel Maddow’s tax return story, include “oh great first i lose my dad now i lose AN HOUR??” and “wake me up when Rachel Maddow gets a DAD return.”
9. Pete Davidson
“Justin, you know, I lost my dad on 9/11 and I always regretted growing up without a dad. Until I met your dad, Justin. Now I’m glad mine’s dead.”
SNL’s Pete Davidson has been open about his father’s death, on 9/11, throughout his career as a comic. The joke above is hardly about grief, but it was just too good not to include. You should really watch the video, his delivery is on point. Plus, he’s got a phenomenal follow-up joke that I don’t want to spoil for you.
10. Alison Zeidman
“My mom’s single. By default, because my dad died. Yeah… he literally ghosted on her.”
Alison Zeidman is currently a writer for TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything. She wrote this gem of a joke about her dad, who passed away in 2014. Like others on this list, Zeidman took to social media to express herself at the time. And like Alyssa Limperis, she wrote a satirical article about the grief she was experiencing; A Father’s Day Sale for the Recently Deceased Dad. Both comics have appeared on Calogero’s podcast, which you can listen to right here.
[R]ight up there with the rule of threes, “tragedy + time = comedy” is one of the most trite principles of joke-telling. Although there are exceptions—looking at you, Jeselnik—many comedians are careful when it comes to sensitive material pertaining to death and the grieving process. Comics constantly grapple with the question: How soon is too soon?
I’m from Orlando, Florida. For weeks after the Pulse shooting, a harmless question of “where are you from?” became a sensitive matter. When my response was “Orlando,” my questioners would usually take a moment or two to reassess where the conversation was headed. Some were curious if I knew anybody affected and would ask me outright. Some were quick to change the subject. A seemingly harmless question indirectly led the conversation towards the topic of death; naturally, people dealt with that in different ways.
As a comic myself, I wrote a joke about experiencing this awkward exchange that was happening pretty frequently: “I’m from Orlando. Yeah, it’s weird saying that right now. People are like ‘Where you from?’ And I’m like, ‘9/11.’”
As you can imagine, this joke was hit or miss. It’s hard to make death funny, but I understand why comics would gravitate towards that kind of material. There are those who simply love the challenge—looking at you again, Jeselnik—and then there are those who turn jokes into a sort of therapeutic process, a means of coping with their own grief. Here are ten comedians who are tackling the subject of death and who are, for lack of a better term, killing it.
1. Laurie Kilmartin
“My dad died doing what he did best: growing tumors.”
I think it’s fair to put Kilmartin at the top of this list, since her most recent special was literally titled 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad. In 2014, Kilmartin live-tweeted the painful experience of losing her dad to lung cancer which was the seed of inspiration for her special. 45 Jokes includes documentary footage of her and her family while her father was in hospice care, which give great and grave context to the hilarious 45 jokes that would follow. As Robert Ham observes in his review for Paste, “just as her tweets touched a nerve in the hearts of the people reading them, this hour could offer up the catharsis that someone needs during a tough, terrible time.”
2. Patton Oswalt
“Bruce Wayne saw his parents gunned down in front of him when he was nine and he travels the world and becomes this amazing [crime fighter]… That’s ridiculous—he would have grown up to have been Gotham City’s most annoying slam poet.”
By the end of April, it will have been a year since Patton Oswalt lost his wife Michelle McNamara. Oswalt has been open about his grieving process, talking about it publicly on Twitter and on shows like Conan and The Late Show. In a recent interview with NPR, Oswalt explains that pop culture’s representation of grief is way off—hence the Batman comparison. When referring to superheros specifically, Oswalt elaborates:
…part of their motivation is based on losing someone that they love. Which then of course leads them to travel the world learning martial arts and doing CrossFit and getting really cut… And that’s not been my experience. When you lose someone, you tend to eat Wheat Thins for breakfast and rewatch The Princess Bride about 80 times and not sleep all that well.
The entire interview is eight minutes long—it’s really worth a listen.
3. Chris Calogero
“My best friend and roommate passed away and I am actually the one who found her in out apartment. It was just the worst way any roommate’s told me they don’t want to live with me anymore.”
Roughly two years ago, NYC based comedian Chris Calogero lost his roommate Amy Daulton, also a comedian. I distinctly remember telling that joke at a bar show only a month or so after her passing. I was struck not only by the fact that he was onstage so soon, but by how funny the joke was. I’ve remembered it ever since. Chris now hosts Mourning Coffee, a podcast where he interviews other comedians about their experiences with grief—how it affects their personal lives as well as their comedy.
4. Shane Torres
“It’s interesting, when somebody you know passes away, you get reminded of them in subtle ways after they’re gone, you know. Like you see a picture or you hear a Linda Ronstadt song, or you drive by a little league field they said they’d be at… but the way my father has chosen to haunt me, is to have all of his debt collectors call me.”
In his late night debut on Conan, Shane Torres continues to elaborate on these “hauntings” from his belated father. We’ll get to see more from Shane soon, since it was recently announced that he was one of fourteen comedians selected to record a Comedy Central Half Hour. In the meantime, though, here’s his set from Paste Studios.
5. Alyssa Limperis
“Hardest season to have a dead dad: holiday. Second hardest: tax”
Alyssa Limperis is a NYC-based comedian who has mounted several installments of her one-woman play No Bad Days, about her experience losing her father to brain cancer. Somehow, it’s packed with jokes. (I know because I’ve seen it firsthand.)
In addition to taking to the stage, Twitter and Facebook, Alyssa has written numerous blog posts that serve as a beautifully raw and insightful glimpse of her inner life throughout the grieving process. On Christmas Eve in 2015, her first Christmas without her father, she posted a “Christmas Newsletter”. She prefaces her entry by introducing what was apparently a tradition: “My dad used to write sarcastic Christmas newsletters to humorously highlight the not so great moments of our past year. Luckily for this exercise, 2015 was filled with many of those. In his honor, I wrote one for this year.”
It’s just as funny and sad as you’d expect it to be.